December 22, 2006

"Compassionate antigovernment conservatives"

There's an interesting piece in Newsweek by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson...

....As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called "an ideology of universal selfishness." Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.

But there is another Republican Party—what might be called the party of the governors. It is the party of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who has improved the educational performance of minority students and responded effectively to natural disasters. It is the party of Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who mandated basic health insurance while giving subsidies to low-income people. Neither of these men embrace big government; both show convincing outrage at wasteful spending. But they have also succeeded in making government work in essential government roles—not a small thing in a post-Katrina world....

I think Gerson is both right and wrong. (There are a number of wrong things I'm not getting into here, but do feel free to comment...) For instance, "What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare?" I'd say, A LOT, since government itself causes many of the problems, and because economic growth is the first essential, if people are going to escape from the trap of the "underclass."

But there is also a lot that government needs to do, since these are people enmeshed in complex situations that government can't avoid. (Certain people I could think of ought to spend some time sitting among the hapless creatures in the waiting area of an inner-city hospital emergency room before they make pronouncements about "getting government off people's backs.") Only government can chose between competing groups and visions—that's never going to end. And government will always be responsible for law, for order, for safety, for education and health care... (Regular RJ readers are saying "wait a minute, we could offer some suggestions here." I'm getting to that.)

However, in every one of these government areas there are improvements or better methods that antigovernment conservatives could offer. But to offer them effectively they have to care. They have to get involved in the problems to have any impact. They need to be—dare I say it—compassionate. There, I said it. And if you are a conservative who cares, and you become say, a state governor, well you have all these tools—governmental tools— to hand, and there are these horrid problems....So you tend to morph into a "compassionate conservative."

But that's not exactly what's really needed. What we need I think are compassionate antigovernment conservatives.

But that's not exactly it either. I think the word antigovernment has a bad flavor. After all, government is us. This is a democracy. If I have a problem with government, I can e-mail my supervisor (San Francisco's aldermen are called supervisors, due to our odd situation of being both a county and a city) and get prompt results. He wants my vote. So government doesn't seem to be the alien monster that anti-government conservatives portray. And yet, the most common sort of situation that arises will pit me and our supervisor against something that feels rather like a strangling alien monster, the bureaucracy. In which fight it is quite possible that we will lose. I could tell you stories.

Perhaps what I'd like to see are compassionate anti-bureaucracy conservatives. And it often feels to me like many conservatives are groping in that direction. Yet we rarely seem to be able to make it explicit. I think that's what Bush's "Ownership Society" is about. For instance, privatizing Social Security is not "getting rid of government," it's getting rid of a bureaucracy. And getting rid of dependence on that bureaucracy. Same with school choice, or HSA's, or favoring 401-k's over traditional pension plans. These are the right ways to move, but I could just weep with frustration because this anti-bureaucracy idea is rarely made explicit—it should be a crusade! And the crusade should be about saving souls! Not in a religious sense, but about saving people's character and spirit from being destroyed by dependence and lack of responsibility. (It's also a religious issue, since the desire to be cocooned from life's dangers, and loss of faith seem to be intertwined.)

Maybe I'm just weird. This stuff seems so obvious to me, but it's not obvious to a smart guy like Gerson....

Posted by John Weidner at December 22, 2006 10:11 AM
Weblog by John Weidner